Great high-definition streaming tools that do the job for you

Seems like every day brings some new gizmo that promises to stream high-definition (HD) video from your PC or the Web to your TV.

They range all the way from USB sticks and flash cards that plug directly into certain new HDTVs, to network-attached hard disks, to stylish set-top boxes that also let you rent movies.

To help make sense of the options and what they can do for you, we’ve divided the streaming landscape into five distinct regions. We’ve also limited it to solutions that offer HD playback of at least 720p. Most support up to 1080i or 1080p.

Streaming Appliances–For Experts Only

If you’re a tech-savvy video hound who likes to download movies using BitTorrent or to rip all your DVDs to hard disk, a new category of streaming appliances is designed just for you.

These networked streamers make a point of supporting nearly every major video codec and streaming transport container, from MPEG-1/2/4, AVI, and H.264, to DivX, XVid, Matroska (MKS), MOV, and VOD.

Many also support DVR-MS, the file format that Media Center PCs use for recorded TV shows. If these sorts of geeked-out media streamers don’t support your particular favorite now, they probably will soon, through one of their frequent firmware updates. The devices do not, however, play files with any form of DRM protection.

We reviewed three brand-new 1080p and HDMI-capable players, all of which have a 3.5-inch drive bay for notebook-sized hard disks and dual external USB ports for adding internal or external storage, or both. The USB ports are very handy for playing back files quickly copied to a flash drive from your PC. You can even attach an optical drive to play back video, music, and photo files stored on CDs and DVDs.

Popcorn Hour A-100

The Popcorn Hour A-100 was our favorite in this category, thanks to its low price ($179 as of 05/28/08), wide format support, built-in BitTorrent client, and ability to stream from many popular Web video, photo, and music sites such as YouTube, Metacafe, Flickr, Picasa, Live365, and Shoutcast. (But be warned: Like the Nintendo Wii, it’s hard to get.)

Mvix MX-780HD & MediaGate MG-450HD

The Mvix MX-780HD and the MediaGate MG-450HD also support many formats, but they are more expensive, lack the BitTorrent client, and can’t play back Web video. They do add 802.11g Wi-Fi, which the Popcorn lacks, but we don’t recommend trying to stream high-def video over 802.11g wireless–it’s simply not fast enough in most cases.

On paper, these Popcorn, Mvix, and MediaGate streamers should be great, with their laundry lists of playback features and their multiple storage options.

But all three were absolute nightmares to set up properly, and they have seriously immature and often-buggy interfaces. With each device, we spent hours on the Web reading tutorials and checking user forums for answers to basic questions that should have been covered in a user guide, or simply designed intuitively in the first place.

Constant firmware updates kept changing the status quo, as well, making it hard to know exactly what the boxes did or did not support. If you’re the type who likes to build Linux boxes and tweak Registry files, you’ll have fun with these devices, but the plug-and-play crowd should look elsewhere.

High-Def Media Center Extenders

Media Center extenders are good solutions for those who want more than the limited streaming options of their game consoles and who already have a Media Center PC (Media Center comes with Vista Home Premium and Ultimate).

Extenders are exactly that–they connect to your MCPC and put the full functionality of the Media Center interface on your HDTV, including access to Microsoft’s many content channels, a DVR interface (assuming you have a TV tuner and capture card), playback of files protected by Windows Media DRM (digital rights management), and much more.

HP is building extenders directly into some of its MediaSmart HDTVs, but most buyers will probably prefer to purchase a separate box.

At this point, you can find high-definition Media Center extenders from Linksys and D-Link.

These products have very similar capabilities, although the $300 Linksys DMA2200 that we’ve previously reviewed includes an upconverting DVD player. If you don’t need the DVD player, the otherwise similar Linksys DMA2100 costs $50 less. The D-Link DSM-750 Extender also costs about $250.

Some media extenders use their own PC software, instead of Microsoft Media Center. SageTV’s HD Media Extender is one example.

Mainstream HD Streamers

If you expect to stream a lot of movies and videos, or if you want to maintain a central music and/or photo library, and if you also want deep playback and navigation features, consider a mainstream high-def streamer like the Apple TV Take Two or the Netgear Digital Entertainer HD.

Apple TV

The Apple TV Take Two was the top-rated choice in our recent chart of streaming devices, thanks to its easy-to-use interface, internal storage capability, and new-found independence from your PC.

The Apple TV can play back all your protected iTunes Store purchases, as well as home movies and other videos converted to H.264 and stored on its built-in hard drive.

High-def rentals are also available, and can be streamed directly from the iTunes store. Music and photo support is excellent, as you would expect, and you can easily create great slide shows set to music.

The downside is that relatively few HD titles are available, and the box is presently limited to 720p playback. You’ll also need to convert most non-iTunes Store videos to the H.264 format. This process can be automated, but is still time-consuming.

Netgear Digital Entertainer HD EVA8000

Next up in our chart of the Best Streaming Media Players is the Netgear Digital Entertainer HD.

The Netgear device is pricey, but it can do a lot of fancy tricks even if you have only Windows XP. It puts out a full 1080p, and was the only player to support both Apple and Windows Media DRM-protected files.

It can integrate with an HDTV tuner/capture card attached to your PC, to act as a digital video recorder and player.

And it can also stream video, photos, and Internet radio from a variety of popular sources, including YouTube, Flickr, and Shoutcast. It lacks any internal storage, but it can stream from a UPnP NAS drive. It’s by far the best streaming option for Windows XP users who lack Media Center.

The HD Streamer You May Already Own

If you own a TiVo HD, xBox 360, or Sony PlayStation 3, you already have an HD streamer. The xBox 360, in particular, can double as an HD Media Center extender, connecting to your Media Center PC over a network and streaming HD video, photos and music, among other features. To turn your xBox into an extender, you just download the necessary software and install it. And good news if your computer doesn’t have Microsoft’s Media Center software installed: you can still stream media from your PC to your Xbox 360 using Windows Media Player 11.

Alternatively, the combo of a networked TiVo HD and the TiVo Desktop Plus software lets you stream unprotected photos, mp3s and videos from your PC, as well as Amazon Unbox movies from the Web (although those are not yet in HD).

The PlayStation 3 also streams unprotected movies, music, and photos from networked PCs using Windows Media Player 11 or another DLNA-compliant media server.

You won’t find fancy slide-show effects or other bells and whistles on these dual-purpose boxes, but the price is right, and their capabilities will be all most people need for the occasional show of family photos and home movies.

Sorry, Wii fans, the little console isn’t HD-capable, but there is still a way you can use it to stream media from your PC to your TV.

Why Compromise? The Living-Room PC

Fortunately, you don’t need to torture yourself to achieve maximum playback and storage flexibility. Instead of buying a streamer box, we recommend spending a little more and simply putting a Media Center PC (or a Mac, for that matter) in your living room and hooking it up to your HDTV via HDMI. Every other streaming solution is basically a compromise, offering just a subset of a full PC’s capabilities.

Trading up to a full PC for streaming has many advantages:

1. You won’t be limited to what you can stream through Windows Media Center or any particular set-top box. Your TV simply becomes a de facto computer display. Anything you can play on your PC, you can view on the big screen, including Amazon Unbox, Netflix Instant, YouTube, Flickr, and so on. Social worlds like Second Life, Facebook, and MySpace can become a group experience on the big screen, and you can use any slide-show software you like to present your photos. Playing Crysis on your big HDTV will also blow you away.

2. You won’t be left behind every time some new video codec or streaming service comes along–you’ll be able to enjoy new video sources as soon as they appear.

3. You’ll interact with the PC interface you already know, and you can keep a wireless keyboard and mouse on the coffee table for anything the Media Center remote can’t handle. And you’ll have no delays while commands are transmitted to a remote PC, as with an extender.

4. You can expand storage as much as needed, and even use your PC as an HD DVR with an off-air ATSC tuner like Pinnacle’s PCTV HD Pro Stick. Some Media Center PCs have CableCard slots for recording cable TV (you’ll need to buy a PC with this capability built-in, since it requires special hardware), and soon DirecTV’s HDPC-20 Tuner box should be available. All will let you integrate your regular TV viewing and DVR recording right into Media Center.

5. You can use whatever network connection you like, including gigabit ethernet or 5-GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi, both of which are rare in set-top boxes. For dropout- and jaggy-free HD streaming, the faster the connection, the better.

Brand-new Vista Media Center PCs can be had for as little as $500 to $600, including HDMI output. Considering that a set-top box or extender with decent storage will run you $350 or so, those extra bucks go a long way. You can also repurpose an old machine for the job, although you’ll likely need to upgrade the video card for HDMI output and maybe a few other things like memory and storage.

And the PC should have Vista Home Premium or Ultimate for the best Media Center experience. One caution: make sure that the fan and disk drives are near-silent. Even a soft hum can be annoying when you are watching a movie.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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